Rarity, Reporting, and Retaliation in Baltimore (and elsewhere)

Gender shrapnel hits home in Baltimore (and everywhere). The New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jess Bidgood reported on August 11, 2016, that the Justice Department’s report on police bias in Baltimore “painted a picture of a police culture deeply dismissive of sexual assault victims and hostile toward prostitutes and transgender people. It branded the Baltimore Police Department’s response to sexual assault cases ‘grossly inadequate.’” They cite examples from the report that include calling an individual who reported a sexual assault a “conniving little whore,” testing only 15% of the rape kits of reported sexual assaults, and expressing concern about “messing up” the life of alleged rape perpetrators. The article also mentions similar investigations in Missoula, Montana, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Puerto Rico.

Just two weeks before (July 26, 2016), The New York Times published an opinion piece by Amy Stewart in which Stewart makes the case for hiring many more women police officers across the United States, in part because “studies show that female officers are significantly less likely to be involved in instances of excessive force or police brutality.”

Taken together, these two stories reveal four key elements of gender shrapnel.

First, the rarity of women on police forces speaks to our collective vision of police officers as armed men. As we know, current questions about hypermasculine cultures and the increased militarization of police forces are on the table, especially as we consider the use of violence against unarmed black men and women. Hiring more women to police forces and, ultimately, to leadership positions in law enforcement will certainly encourage a more “in the trenches” move to have police forces reflect and respond to—rather than oppose—our communities.

Second, all of the important issues raised by the BlackLivesMatter movement, and by many other activists and authors, point to an increased need for intersectional reflection. Baltimore’s NAACP President Tessa Hill-Aston, as cited in the New York Times article about Baltimore, says, “They just didn’t care, because it was a poor black woman or a poor black neighborhood.” Ms. Hill-Aston perceptively signals that we need to look at intersections of gender (including transgender), race, and class in the case of black women’s reticence to report rape in Baltimore.

Third, a sure sign of a sick system is when people attempt to go to authorities to report crime and are further victimized or abused by those authorities. To have to report, possibly have a rape kit done, and then continue to recount the story is difficult enough. Add to that real additional abuse by the authorities (ranging from an officer actually raping a victim making a report to letting rape kits languish for years in labs), and you’ve created a system in which individuals are actively discouraged from reporting severe felonies. Retaliation—a turning against and punishing those who report crimes—is the reinforcing element of sexual and racial discrimination and harassment. In many cases, authority remains coolly white and patriarchal, reinforcing its power and maintaining its distance from the communities it is supposed to serve.

Fourth, we need more people to call out these actions and to recognize the dehumanizing effects of them. Silence and shutting up (see Chapter 7 of Gender Shrapnel) contribute to a real and rhetorical violence that permeates our communities.

Don’t we want to live in communities in which we value each other’s full humanity? Let’s address questions of rarity (hire more women and people of color), reporting (transparent and fully accountable), and retaliation (remove those who practice it) head-on.

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